What the movies and TV always get wrong about New Orleans.

What we're watching.
Sept. 21 2007 2:17 PM

Let's Eat Some Gumbo on My Fan Boat

What the movies and TV always get wrong about New Orleans.

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Anthony Anderson and Cole Hauser in K-ville.
Anthony Anderson and Cole Hauser in K-ville

I've yet to see a TV show or movie set in New Orleans that evokes the place I grew up in. As a kid, I got used to seeing Hollywood depict the city as a tidy fusion of the French Quarter and a smoky, fetid swamp. I watched the basketball movie Blue Chips and wondered why Nick Nolte had to take a fan boat to go on a scouting trip to the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers —the rough equivalent of hiring a bush pilot to go from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Wouldn't it have been faster if he took the bridge?

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

After the storm, that compressed, Bourbon Street-and-cypress-trees geographic footprint started to look like prophesy. As the waters rose and turned most of the city into a giant swamp, the Quarter—New Orleans' original settlement—stayed dry. Even so, the old movie-land template was broken. Everyone who turned on the news and saw the chaos outside the Superdome learned what the movies and TV had never cared to reveal. The Big Easy isn't just a collection of landmarks, quirky customs, and funny accents. It's a place where people live.

Judging by the first episode of K-Ville (Fox, Mondays at 9 p.m. ET), there will be a lot more humanity in post-Katrina television. As the show opens, police officer Marlin Boulet (Anthony Anderson) screams as his partner runs off in the chaotic hours after the levees broke. The action flashes forward two years, and Boulet still looks stricken. He loves the city and vows to stick it out, but his neighborhood is still mostly abandoned, his wife and daughter are set on moving to Atlanta, and his weasel of a partner wants back on the force. The key to Anderson's moving performance is the range of emotion in his eyes, which flicker between scared and angry, frantic and steadfast.

What's perplexing about K-Ville is that a show that gets the big things right manages to get all the small things wrong. How can such a spot-on, post-Katrina character study still be so beholden to the same worn-out New Orleans iconography we've seen dozens of times before? This is a show that pays attention to residential, non-tourist-trafficked neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East that never would've seen the screen a decade ago. It's also a show where there's a po' boy on every plate and a trombone player on every porch. The plot of the first episode is timely and compelling (a shady developer buys up land in the Ninth Ward) and laughably hackneyed (the daughter of old-money casino owner Rex DuBois arranges to have a local jazz chanteuse murdered). When Boulet's head starts swimming, he confesses to his new partner, "I need some gumbo. Gumbo, man—it's what I do when I need to think!" And someone get that man some Mardi Gras beads, stat!

While K-Ville's backdrop of boarded-up houses and anti-FEMA graffiti places it in 2007, many of the show's cultural touchstones are more evocative of A Streetcar Named Desire than the present day. It's not just the Tennessee Williams-style sweat, booze, and neon lights that feel familiar. A midepisode visit to a voodoo shop (or is it a hoodoo shop?) portends a predictable dalliance with the local witch doctor scene—rent black-arts-on-the-Bayou flicks Angel Heart and The Skeleton Key to see how that's going to turn out. Perhaps if the writers get really lazy, we'll see future plots culled from the Simpsons episode in which Chief Wiggum travels to New Orleans (aka "Sweet Lady Gumbo") to set up a detective agency, only to have an underworld kingpin threaten his life by tossing an alligator through his window.

Why has every television show set in New Orleans—you probably won't remember Bourbon Street Beat or Longstreet or The Big Easy (a spinoff of the movie of the same name) or Orleans—been a short-lived flop? Perhaps because the writers and producers pour on local color like hot sauce, in the hopes of spicing up a bland premise—local judge has kids who are a cop, a district attorney, and a riverboat casino manager, for instance—that wouldn't sustain a two-page outline if the primary location were Iowa City.

Despite the city's terrible track record when it comes to fostering a TV series, K-Ville isn't a lost cause. For one thing, there's nothing bland about New Orleans circa 2007. It's also been proved that it is possible to make a show that captures the city's spirit without looking like an ad for the convention and visitor's bureau. Frank's Place, which aired for a single season on CBS in 1987-88, should've been the city's Cheers. The show, beloved by locals despite the fact that, yes, a voodoo curse figured prominently in the plot, centered around the regulars at a local Creole restaurant. As Rolling Stone's Mark Christensen wrote at the time, "rarely has a prime-time show attempted to capture so accurately a particular American subculture—in this case that of blue-collar blacks in Louisiana." Frank's Place didn't simply pile on servings of red beans and rice—it created a world in which the characters and the setting couldn't exist in isolation. Take the episode in which Frank, a Boston transplant, gets a crash course on the racial politics of his adopted city, learning about the social aid and pleasure club scene's history of black-on-black discrimination.

Alas, it's not realistic to hold K-Ville to the standard of Frank's Place—after all, the latter was canceled because audiences didn't latch onto its challenging material. It's also fair to say that K-Ville will probably never evoke New Orleans in the way that The Wire, which has the benefit of being a nonnetwork show, evokes Baltimore. Nevertheless, the show's network time slot means it will likely become the most-seen record of what's been happening in the city these last two years. In tortured cop Marlin Boulet, the show already has a compelling lead character. Now, K-Ville's writers and producers simply need to show the resolve to leave out the murdered jazz singers and mine New Orleans' plight for fresher cops-and-robbers story lines—the machinations of the Levee Board, graft on federal contracts, and a spiking murder rate as a result of post-Katrina turf wars. If that doesn't work, they can always have Marlin Boulet put a voodoo hex on Mayor Ray Nagin.